Its Not about the Burqa

in conversation with Salma Haidrani

Wednesday 06th March 2019 07:27 EST
Salma Haidrani

She is of half Lebanese and half Pakistani origin. She is a Muslim by religion who does not embrace the burqa but talks about its political symbolism today. A freelance journalist exploring the hinterlands of London, she discovers voices from the marginalised communities that don’t make headlines in mainstream media- and if in rare cases they do, it is usually for wrong reasons- and she writes about everything that is engraved on the other side of the coin. But beyond all, she is a woman who humanises stories of other fellow Muslim women. 

As #balanceforbetter marks the theme for this year’s International Women’s Day special, Salma Haidrani loops together sex, social media, identity and religion putting them at the forefront of today’s conversation around the struggles of being a female Muslim journalist in the UK. 

“Quite a few leading figures were initially sceptical of working with me because social media- especially with regards to the right-wing rhetoric- is centred around Islamophobia and specifically gendered Islamophobia.

“But over time, as I built my portfolio and interacted more with the community members, I started gaining their confidence,” discloses the graduate from Sheffield University.

Since half a decade now, Salma has been dispelling perceptions around Muslim women often peddled by pockets of mainstream media where they are stereotyped as being submissive, and docile. The idea that Muslim women don’t or can’t have a pleasurable sex life was a disturbing notion that had her tracking the owner of an online sex shop. She recalls of the article that she had penned in 2016 titled ‘Halal Vibrations: Exploring an X-Rated Muslim Sex Shop’ where she highlights how a Halal Adult Store provides a discreet, and almost an invisible safe space for  women who wanted to shop for sex toys.   

“I was very proud of my piece because it dismissed the alien concept among the white western establishment that Muslim women only have sex because their husbands want it.

“And I remember immediately after sharing the article online, I was bulldozed by a dozen odd trolls- one of them asking ‘Why would Muslim women need sex shops?’ I was so shocked to realise that this whole idea of us enjoying sex as any other woman from any other religion was just so foreign to them!” Salma reminisces.

Social media, especially for journalists, is a double-edged sword that helps in networking but the flip side of which poses serious security concerns. In a post 9/11 world and a post-Brexit UK rampant with Islamophobia, a very strong vocal social media presence scares Salma. She documents her degree of fear from twitter and Facebook, in ‘Eight Notifications’ in the book ‘It’s not about the burqa’ where she reveals how she was scared of her phone at one point of time. 

“I would switch out the times when I would come back from work because I was scared, of anyone following me if they figured out my routine so I would change it every now and then. 

“I am conscious of what I tweet about and write, and this is not something that I think male journalists have to be so acutely wary of. I may be wrong, but I feel that comparatively we [women] have to throw more caution to the wind,” she trails off uncertainty colouring her voice.

Greater is the controversy around the subject, Salma feels greater is the security concern. From attending a UKIP conference back in 2016 where she had taken on Lisa Duffy’s crusade that Muslim women needed to be protected as if they were all in suffering to recently interviewing the documentary maker of ‘Satanic Verses’ Salma watches her every step that can lead to hostility both from within the Islamic community and outside of it.

“It is really unfortunate but a lot of these politicians scapegoat Muslim women to gain their relevance and to build a vote bank for themselves. Boris Johnson’s letterboxes comment was absolutely ridiculous because what we wear has nothing to do with politicians,” she fervently argues.  

“There was a time when I had asked myself- ‘Is this something that I really want to do? Keep writing these articles and always defend myself? Today I can say that I am very proud to have continued,” she concludes. 

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